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U.S. Supreme Court Says Reasonable Mistakes by Police About the Law Can Still Justify a Traffic Stop

mistake of law traffic stop supreme court

Generally, the Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.”  But what happens if the officer thinks he has justification for pulling someone over, but it turns out he was wrong?  The Supreme Court answered this question recently in its 8-1 decision in Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13-604.

Mistakes of Law by Officers

Here, an officer stopped a car because one of its two brake lights was out.  But a court later found that under state law (in North Carolina), only one working brake light is required.  Does the officer’s mistake about what the law says make the stop unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment?  This is the question the U.S. Supreme Court addresses in this case.  

Driver Stopped for Faulty Brake Light (Which Was Not Illegal)

An officer was on patrol on the Interstate.  Around 8:00 am, he saw a Ford Escort drive by and noticed that the driver looked “very stiff and nervous.”   So the officer began following him.   A few miles later, the Escort braked as it approached a slower vehicle, but only the left brake light came on. Noting the faulty right brake light, the officer activated his vehicle’s lights and pulled the Escort over. 

Two men were in the car: one driver and one laying down in the back seat (the defendant in this case). The officer checked his license and registration and everything was fine.  He said he was going to just issue a warning about the brake light.  

But the officer noticed that the driver seemed nervous, the defendant in the backseat stayed lying down the whole time, and both men gave inconsistent answers about where they were going.

The officer asked the driver if he would be willing to answer some questions.  He asked if they were transporting some kind of contraband.   The driver said no, and the officer asked to search the car.  The driver said it was okay with him, but said he should ask the defendant in the backseat who owned the car. 

The defendant consented as well.  During the search, the officer found a sandwich bag containing cocaine in the side compartment of a duffle bag.  Both men were arrested and the defendant was charged with attempted trafficking.  

Majority of the Court Finds Officer’s Mistake Was Reasonable

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence seized from the car, arguing that the stop violated the Fourth Amendment.  

The issue was whether the stop was reasonable given that the officer pulled the car over because of a faulty brake light, but having faulty brake light was not actually a traffic violation in that state at the time. 

The Supreme Court found in favor of the State (the prosecution).  The Court held that if the mistake is “reasonable”, it is not a Fourth Amendment violation.  Here, because the traffic code section at issue was unclear as to whether one headlight or two headlights were required, the officer was found to have acted reasonably in pulling the car over. 

As a result, the stop and subsequent search was found to be constitutional.  The cocaine seized in the search was admissible. 

Justice Sotomayor’s Dissent: Giving More Leeway to Police for Pretextual Traffic Stops Will Create More Distrust and Confusion

Justice Sotomayor wrote the sole dissenting opinion in the court.  In her opinion, the stop should have been found unconstitutional and the drug evidence found in the search should be inadmissible. 

In her opinion, a decision like this will open the door to even more pretextual stops by police.  In other words, it could encourage officers to make up a reason to stop someone even where there was no valid legal traffic or criminal violation. 

In her mind, a better approach would be that “an officer’s mistake of law, no matter how reasonable, cannot support the individualized suspicion necessary to justify a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.” 

What Does This Mean for Police Overreaching  & Racial Profiling in Ohio?

As This Week points out, Justice Sotomayor was the only justice to raise the disturbing issue at oral argument that this case was at its base racial profiling.  

A Hispanic man was pulled had his car pulled over and had his car thoroughly searched after being followed just because he looked “stiff”, had a 10-and-2 hand position on his steering wheel and was “looking straight ahead.”  And it turned out that the reason he was pulled over (a faulty brake light) wasn’t even against the law.

Dahlia Lithwick at Slate also has an excellent discussion of the potential implications of the Heien case on police overreaching.  

Traffic stops are for many people the most common interaction with police.   This decision, Slate points out, “barely even acknowledges that, by giving police officers license going forward to claim that they were confused about this law or that law, there will be even more distrust and error.”